British Principles of War – Are They Applied in 21st Century UK Defence Policy and Planning?

Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz Author of On War- (Portrait while in Prussian service, by Karl Wilhelm Wach)

Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz Author of On War- (Portrait while in Prussian service, by Karl Wilhelm Wach)

This DS Commentary covers the ‘Principles of War’ as applied to UK 21st Century Defence Output. It is written as a personal view with inputs from within DS. It is by necessity short and therefore only briefly covers some of the ground that a comprehensive paper might include.

However, it has become clear to DS that there is a growing disconnect in UK Defence rhetoric versus realisable capability and that this disconnect may in part be apportioned to a worrying trend in paying lip service to UK Doctrine, as taught on Staff Courses. In this case, we have selected 5 of the 10 Principles of War – Selection and Maintenance of the Aim; Maintenance of Morale; Concentration of Force; Economy of Effort and Sustainability – as illustrative of the problem. In the final analysis, posing the question, can the Chiefs of Staff genuinely speak truth unto power?

British Principles of War – Are They Applied in 21st Century UK Defence Policy and Planning?


The UK uses 10 principles of war, as taught to all British officers and promulgated in British Defence Doctrine (BDD 2014), which states: “Principles of War guide commanders and their staffs in the planning and conduct of warfare. They are enduring, but not immutable, absolute or prescriptive, and provide an appropriate foundation for all military activity. The relative importance of each may vary according to context; their application requires judgement, common sense and intelligent interpretation. Commanders also need to take into account the legitimacy of their actions, based on the legal, moral, political, diplomatic and ethical propriety of the conduct of military forces, once committed.”

The ten principles listed in BDD 2014 are:

Selection and Maintenance of the Aim. A single, unambiguous aim is the keystone of successful military operations. Selection and maintenance of the aim is regarded as the master principle of war.

Maintenance of Morale. Morale is a positive state of mind derived from inspired political and military leadership, a shared sense of purpose and values, well-being, perceptions of worth and group cohesion.

Offensive Action. Offensive action is the practical way in which a commander seeks to gain advantage, sustain momentum and seize the initiative.

Security. Security is the provision and maintenance of an operating environment that affords the necessary freedom of action, when and where required, to achieve objectives.

Surprise. Surprise is the consequence of shock and confusion induced by the deliberate or incidental introduction of the unexpected.

Concentration of Force. Concentration of force involves the decisive, synchronized application of superior fighting power (conceptual, physical, and moral) to realize intended effects, when and where required.

Economy of Effort. Economy of effort is the judicious exploitation of manpower, materiel and time in relation to the achievement of objectives.

Flexibility. Flexibility – the ability to change readily to meet new circumstances – comprises agility, responsiveness, resilience, acuity and adaptability.

Cooperation. Cooperation entails the incorporation of teamwork and a sharing of dangers, burdens, risks and opportunities in every aspect of warfare.

Sustainability (formerly known as Administration). To sustain a force is to generate the means by which its fighting power and freedom of action are maintained.


This short commentary is written as a personal view to explore British Principles of War and whether they are being appropriately applied in 21st Century UK Defence Policy and Planning. By necessity this commentary will only cover a few of the major principles outlined above to illustrate how current defence planning and resources may not meet these principles and doctrine other than in MOD public relations hype. It is hoped that a fuller and more complete DefenceSynergia paper may follow in due course.

Selection and Maintenance of the Aim. It can be argued at one level that selection and maintenance of a military aim is operationally and politically dependent. However, it can also be argued that from a cohesive defence planning point of view it is difficult to select and maintain an aim that has not been cogently articulated first. In this sense the lacuna in higher level government Strategy makes it almost impossible for the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to ascertain the why, when, where and how questions driving Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) requirements for the raising and tasking of HM Forces. To fill the gap MOD must rely upon a plethora of lower level departmental documents, laissez-faire interpretation and then respond in a ‘come as you are’ fashion.

Maintenance of Morale. As the Armed Forces Continual Attitude Survey confirms and much anecdotal evidence alludes, personnel morale in HM Armed Forces is fragile at best. Retention and recruitment, especially for specialist personnel – pinch trades – is problematic with attendant knock on effects for morale more generally when major weapons platforms cannot perform or deploy through lack of servicing or operational staffing and have to be temporarily mothballed for lack of technical support. The Royal Navy (RN) and Royal Air Force (RAF), both being dependant upon high tech platforms and trained skill sets, suffering more than the Army. However, morale in the Army maybe less vulnerable on home base but can suffer very rapid decline on operations if the high tech weapons platforms they rely upon for combat support are not available when the shrapnel begins to fly and casualties begin to mount. Therefore, the ability for the services to support and maintain complex equipment and supply chains in-theatre without contractor input is essential.

Concentration of Force. It is often argued by MOD that the combination of high tech equipment being provided for HM Armed Forces negates the effects of downsizing in both manpower and weapons platforms. However, for this to be true it is necessary for MOD to say how the remaining personnel and equipment can be assembled in concentrated force beyond ‘Battle Group’ size when they acknowledge that combat operations will be deployed, yet the forces concerned are home based. Where are the force projection and protection enablers – RN and RAF heavy sea and air lift and escorts – to move and protect more than a single army light brigade at short notice? As the former Deputy Commander of NATO, Gen Shirreff has alluded, the British Army is in the position of being unable to concentrate armoured forces in a NATO context without a long lead-in warning period. In the past it has been cogently argued that the alleged British Army failure in Iraq was precipitated by never having enough forces on the ground; a situation that was compounded when the Government and MOD authorised a simultaneous deployment in Afghanistan thereby ignoring the Concentration of Force Principle to meet political expediency.

Economy of Effort. A cynic might argue that economy of effort is the one Principle of War that the MOD has paid most attention to; some might argue to the detriment of all the other principles. The ‘judicious exploitation of manpower, materiel and time in relation to the achievement of objectives’ having become an end in itself, supplanting the actual meaning in the minds of MOD senior staff and our political elite alike as they focus on the first part of the definition and ignore the latter – achievement of objectives. For example:

a. The argument by MOD to justify the number of T45 Destroyer escorts – 6 down from the original 12 – was based on a force multiplying concept called Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC), but once money saved on hulls had been banked, CEC was then cancelled to save less than circa £400m across the RN budget.

b. Despite a resurgent Russia and threat to the Baltic NATO states, MOD is continuing to recover Germany based British armoured units to the UK in order to realise savings of circa £250m per annum. Yet no compensating enhancement to the RN/RAF strategic transport forces is being funded to facilitate rapid return of armoured forces if required.

Sustainability. Quite what MOD’s plans are for long term sustainability are something of a mystery. What is known is that reloads for expendable weapons are kept low in peacetime with no obvious work being undertaken to assess ‘war rates of effort’ to calculate (or fund) war reserves. Whether the issue is weapons, platforms or spares, the mantra is ‘Just in Time’ – which in British serving circles is cynically referred to as ‘Just too Late’. As a consequence are RAF operations over Iraq/Syria restricted by aircraft availability or the need to conserve the most expensive missiles, or both? In recent times British Army personnel in Afghanistan took casualties in a minefield partly because no available RAF helicopter had a winch; soldiers on the front line had to negotiate with their Taliban enemy because they were isolated and running out of ammunition; the RN has had to mothball its Scan Eagle drones for lack of sustainment funding, the list goes on.

Conclusion. There is scope here for a much wider examination of British Defence Policy in relation to the established Principles of War. This commentary has just scratched the surface. But it must be clear to anyone outside the ‘can do’ brigade that there are serious deficiencies between the doctrine and operational estimate planning that senior officers teach junior leaders, and the reality in defence provision and capability being offered. This is a failure of leadership that requires redressing by the Chiefs of Service Staff – a good start would be if the politicians were to hear their military advisers speak truth unto their power.